Everything that we have and are is a gift. None of us ever did anything — none of us ever could have done anything — to earn the gifts that are life and consciousness.
This, Maimonides stunningly suggests, is what Psalm 89 means when it tells us that the world is built on chesed — that is, on divine grace: God owed us nothing, and yet chose to bring the world into being and thus to give us something. The world, and our life within it, is a product of God’s grace and lovingkindness.
What does all this mean? Judaism is, at bottom, a religion of gratitude. Nothing is more antithetical to Jewish spiritual awareness than an overweening sense of entitlement, and nothing more indicative of a Jewish approach to life than an abundant sense of appreciation. Traditionally, Jews begin each day with three simple words: “Modeh (or Modah) Ani Lefanecha,” grateful am I before You. Note that we do not say, “Ani Modeh,” I am grateful, but “Modeh Ani,” grateful am I — as if to suggest that there is no self without gratitude, that I do not become fully human unless and until I convey my gratitude to the One who created the gift that I am, and the even greater gift that I inhabit.
What are we to do with this realization of our having been created, of having arrived in the world, not through our own efforts but through the grace and kindness of God? Put simply, we are called to give what we have been given. Having received an inestimable gift of chesed, we are called upon to bestow chesed ourselves. This is the underlying basis of Judaism’s highest spiritual ideal — that we walk in God’s ways by becoming compassionate and merciful.
But Judaism does not tell us merely that we are created, but rather also that we are created in the image of God, and are therefore infinitely valuable and beloved of God. To be a serious Jew, then, is to strive to affirm the dignity and value of every person. But it is also to live with an often excruciating tension: On the one hand, Judaism tells us that every human being matters in an ultimate way; but on the other hand, we live with the reality that human dignity is trodden and trampled upon in countless ways — by cruelty and callousness, by illness and disease, by deprivation and desperation, and by pervasive hunger, poverty, oppression and loneliness. The extent of human suffering threatens to reduce our belief in “the image of God” to so much cant and nonsense. It is in the yawning chasm between this foundational assertion of Jewish theology on the one hand, and our daily experience of that assertion’s being not-yet-true on the other, that the covenant between God and Israel is born.
By creating human beings, God has taken an enormous risk — the risk that God will be painfully and repeatedly disappointed. In an act of infinite love, God has chosen to need us. Judaism rises and falls with the insistence that God has entered into a relationship with the Jewish people in which we are called upon to help narrow the enormous gap between the ideal and the real. God’s dream is of a world in which human dignity is real and the presence of God is manifest. To be a covenantal Jew is to dare to dream with God.
I want to emphasize that there are two critical and intertwined mandates here — creating a just and compassionate society on the one hand, and entering into a conscious, explicit relationship with God on the other. Too often in liberal presentations of the Jewish tradition, the latter imperative is elided or simply collapsed into the first. To be clear: A just and compassionate world is a crucial and constitutive piece of God’s dream, but it alone does not exhaust it. Since evil and suffering are the biggest obstacles to human recognition of the divine, the elimination (or, at least, the dramatic mitigation) of the former makes the latter more possible. Recall that Pharaoh is ordered not merely to “let My people go,” but rather to “let My people go that they may serve Me” (Exodus 7:26).
If a covenant is a bridge between the world as it is and the world as it must be, Halacha is the language with which we tell God’s story. It is the way in which God and we together give voice to our most treasured memories and our deepest aspirations, the path by which we attempt to introduce the sacred into the mundane, the holy into the otherwise merely profane. But let me state this as clearly as I can: Halacha is not enough. Judaism has a clear vision of the kind of human beings it wants us to become. We are required to observe the mitzvot — no small task, to be sure — but that is only the baseline. The Torah asks us not merely to obey measurable laws, but also to “walk in God’s ways” — that is, the rabbis explain, to clothe the naked and visit the sick, to bury the dead and comfort the bereaved. We are asked to become like God by being creatures of chesed, of love manifested as kindness. Even more profoundly, we are asked to transform our own suffering into love — to love the stranger, because, after all, we “know the feelings of the stranger.”
To become a Jew in the deepest sense is to cultivate one’s innate capacity for compassion, and to strive to serve as an earthly reflection of God’s own infinite compassion. It is through lives of chesed that we become truly human, but also through them that God’s presence is, as it were, returned to the world.
Rabbi Shai Held is Rosh HaYeshiva and Chair in Jewish Thought at Mechon Hadar in New York City (www.mechonhadar.org). This article is adapted from an essay in the recently published “Jewish Theology in Our Time” (Jewish Lights).